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I am a New Zealand registered nurse and nutritionist (Grad Cert Sci: nutrition, Massey Univ). I am a Certified Zone Instructor, and have worked teaching Zone diet principles to hundreds of clients over the last 10 years. More recently after finding that eating Paleo food choices was the "icing on the cake" health wise, I have become a Paleo enthusiast and teacher. Follow me on twitter @juliannejtaylor

All about Omegas 3, 6 and 9

All about Omega 3, 6 and 9

Omega 3, omega 6, omega 9, flax oil, chia seeds, fish oil – what’s the difference and what should we be taking?


What are omega 3, 6 and 9 fats?

Firstly omega 3, 6 and 9 are NOT saturated fats.

Saturated fats have hydrogen molecules linked to carbon molecules at every possible point along the fatty acid chain, hence all carbon atoms are saturated with hydrogen atoms. The fat molecules are therefore straight and pack together easily to form a solid fat, like butter.

Omega 3, 6 and 9 are UN-saturated fats, which means that they have carbon atoms that do not have a hydrogen atom attached to them, and instead the carbon atom forms a double bond with the neighbouring carbon atom. The double bonds make a bend in the fatty acid molecule so they can’t pack as closely together, the fat stays liquid making it an oil.

The 3, 6 or 9 number refers to the position along the chain of carbon atoms that the first double bond falls.

There are two different types of unsaturated fats – polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. Poly = many, so a polyunsaturated fat has more than one double bond along its length. Both omega 6 and omega 3 fats are polyunsaturated. Mono = 1, so a mono-unsaturated fat has just one double bond. Omega 9 fats are monounsaturated.

Monounsaturated fats are found in high amounts in olive oil, avocados and most nuts. The most common omega 9 oil is called oleic acid (look on labels and you may see this listed). Monounsaturated fats are healthy because they lower cholesterol levels.

Polyunsaturated fats – omega 3 and 6 have an important role in the body because they are the building blocks of eicosanoid hormones. Eicosanoids have many regulatory functions in the body. One function is regulating the inflammatory response, one hormone will increase and one will decrease inflammation. Eicosanoids that are synthesized from omega 3 fats (EPA) tend to be anti-inflammatory whereas eicosanoids derived from omega 6 fats (arachidonic acid) can promote inflammation.

The typical western diet has become extremely unbalanced and we have far too much omega 6 and far too little omega 3. This promotes a chronic state of low grade inflammation. Low grade inflammation may not be felt (called silent inflammation) however it promotes many health problems and diseases such as cardio vascular disease. We now have a ratio of around 10 parts omega 6 to 1 part omega 3. Healthy anti-inflammatory diets have a ratio of 2 parts omega 6 to 1 part omega 3.

To get an ideal ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 in our diet we need to decrease the amount of omega 6 and increase the amount of omega 3 we eat.
How do you remove excess omega 6?

Omega 6 is the predominant polyunsaturated fatty acid in vegetable and seed oils that you buy at the supermarket. In order to find out how much omega 6 is in an oil – have a look at the label on the back – go to the amounts per 100mls. Look down the label until you get to polyunsaturated oil amount. You will see on some oils this amount is very high – for example on sunflower oil – there is 66grams per 100 mls, whereas in olive oil it is about 15 grams per 100mls.  Take out all fats and oils which have these high levels of polyunsaturated fat / omega 6 in them like vegetable, soy, safflower and sunflower oils. Replace them with oils high in omega 9 such as olive oil and avocado. Check the label again – you will see they have a high percentage of monounsaturated fat. Nuts are also good but have slightly higher levels of omega 6, best nuts are almonds and macadamia nuts – use in moderation. Remove all other vegetable oils, limit the amount of seeds like sunflower and pumpkin also as they have a higher omega 6 amount than nuts. Another alternative is to use coconut oil, a “good” saturated fat which is heat stable and has no Omega 6.

Omega 6 fats are used extensively in the food industry, as they are cheap and abundant, so avoid commercial foods where possible.

The difference between flax and fish oil omega 3.

There are two main types of omega 3. One is plant omega 3 and is the type found in flax and chia and other plant seeds. It is called ALA and is a short chain omega 3, the fatty acid is 18 carbons long. The other type of omega 3 is EPA and DHA and is found in fish oil. They are long chain omega 3, being 20 and 22 carbon atoms long.

Only EPA can be directly used by the body to make eicosanoid hormones and DHA is used by the brain and nerve cells. ALA must be elongated from 18 carbons to 20 carbons before it is able to be used. This is a very inefficient process in our body and only 6% of ALA is converted to EPA, even less to DHA.

Flax or chia seed or other plant oils therefore are not a good source of usable omega 3.

EPA and DHA is found in fish oil, and this is the omega 3 recommended. In choosing a fish oil supplement, ensure it is of good quality, ideally concentrated and purified and has been tested to ensure it has no contaminants or oxidation.

How much Omega 3 do you need?
Unless you eat oily fish daily (salmon, sardines, mackerel) you will not be getting enough omega 3 to provide at least a 1 to 4 ratio between omega 3 and 6, in order to keep us in best health and reduce silent inflammation.

Barry Sears found in blood tests that most people need to supplement their diets with 2500mg EPA + DHA to reach the optimal balance of omega 3 to 6.

Other studies show that you need to take 1000mg per day to get adequate omega 3 to reduce your risk of heart disease.

People with inflammatory issues or mental health disorders may need up to 10,000mg EPA + DHA.

How to work out how much Omega 3 is in your supplement

First look at the Nutrition label.
It should say something like ‘each capsule provides:’
Or it might say ‘serving size 2 capsules provides:’
Look at the amount of EPA and then add to this the amount of DHA.

In Omega Science each capsule contains:
EPA 300mg and DHA 200mg. Add these together – Total is 500mg Omega 3 per capsule

So to get 1000mg of omega 3 you would need to take 2 capsules per day.

What about omega 6 and 9 supplements?

As we already get far too much omega 6 in our diet – it is not needed as a supplement, the supplements that give you omega 3 and 6 typically tend to be flax oil. Omega 9 is found in large amounts in healthy monounsaturated oils such as olive oil, so again a supplement is not necessary.

More Reading:
The importance of the omega-6/omega-3 fatty acid ratio in cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases.
Simopoulos AP.

Zone products omega 3 is both concentrated and highly purified
OmegaRx from Dr Barry Sears
Omega Science, high concentrate, high purity and great value for quality

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